Jule Wagner on her Gravelbike, © Jule Wagner

A stony rich week­end

Dis­cov­er­ies in the Sauer­land

It was Friday at noon, chaos was still raging on my desk, and dirty laundry was heaped in the basement. While trying to master both of these battlefields at the same time, I was running a slalom race around children’s toys, balancing my guilty conscience past the two dogs. They alternatingly fixed me and the front door with their big eyes. The weekday fatigue, however, was steadily displaced the excitement of the weekend before me. There, in the middle of all the chaos, was my travel bag. While I was taking the floofs walkies, my mind was already packing it bit by bit. I was a bit out of practice. After all, even my radius for “just going out a bit” had become minimised by taking up family life and the months of the Covid Challenge. Now I was brimming with excitement to be out and about again.

I left a notice saying “Bye sweethearts – Missing you already” on a note in the kitchen and headed off on my micro-adventure. I had put aside the everyday gratin and dropped every ingredient I needed for my very favourite dish in the trunk of my car: my great gravel bike, a fine choice of routes, dusty weather with a guarantee of sunburn, time until Sunday afternoon, a choice of biscuits, and, of course, the packed travel bag.

Thistle, © Jule Wagner

Barely two hours later, I was driving into the parking lot of the Aktiv Hotel Winterberg in the Sauerland. It’s really not far. Even though a few years had gone by, literally, my memory of previous stays here immediately sent a medium-hot serving of lactate down my legs. Most of my visits here happened somewhere between the start and finish line, with my focus rather on getting to the latter as quickly as possible. Mountain bike marathon used to be my favourite weekend activity after all. I found the greatest pleasure in pushing myself up all the mountains for hours, my heart racing at 180 beats per second, before sprinting back down again – at the same heartrate, of course. Beyond the finish line, the cake counter waiting there would catch a hold of me to set off a happy calorie firework. It’s a bit crazy in retrospect. As you might imagine, I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the countryside and the people around me in that entire endeavour. In this visit ahead of me, things are likely to be a little different. Hallelujah.

I opened the slightly mossy trunk lid of my old car, looking down at my sparkling and gleaming gravel bike and finding a happy grin on my face as I realised: “There are many beautiful miles waiting for us in the next 48 hours”. A little challenge was probably waiting for me and my rather mile-deprived cycling legs. I really couldn’t remember when I had last spent this much time on my bike. I did, however, remember perfectly just how exhausted I was the other day after shuttling our 2-year-old daughter around on a cargo bike for 30 flat miles.

“It’ll be fine,” I told myself. The biggest and most important difference from those days would probably be that I was not going to try and be as fast as possible to reach the finish line as soon as possible, but to find myself particularly nicely. Once again, I was looking forward to getting to know the Sauerland around Winterberg from its slower side, with the gravel bike and a good helping of time.

Gravel bike leaning against wall , © Jule Wagner

The gravel bike has recently become a trendy device that has run its way into the hearts of cycling enthusiasts. It’s hardly surprising, as it blends the worlds of road and mountain biking, combining speed and elegance with wild bumping through the woods. The carefree flight across the gravel, with excursions into the other two areas an option at all times, is located right between them. In the last few years, I have come to know and love these areas. I appreciate the freedom of the gravel bike with all its facets.

Based on recommendations from the Sauerland-Radwelt I had chosen three tours for my little break. All of them can be found in the tour portal of the Bike Arena Sauerland. They should, of course, be suitable for gravel fans. All tours start from the parking lot of the trail park in Winterberg, just a few hundred meters away from the hotel, true to the motto “Vonne Poofe anne Piste”. A great condition for maximum time windows. That’s the way I like it. Each route led in a different cardinal direction and my grin was growing broader and broader with every passing moment.

  • Jule with her gravel bike, © Jule Wagner
    Quarry in the Sauerland, © Jule Wagner
    A lizard on a stony surface, © Jule Wagner
  • Poppies by the wayside , © Jule Wagner
    Jule is lying on the meadow and resting, © Jule Wagner
    Jule at the Hillebachsee in the Sauerland, © Jule Wagner

The two half days of my trip, Friday and Sunday, were to be dedicated to tours of around 40 kilometres each. They both had just under 500 metres of altitude difference. The main section was to be 60 kilometres of gravel fun on Saturday that would crack the pretty mark of 1000 altitude metres. Of course, the tours I could choose from had also included a few things from the “higher, faster, further” category. Still, this was the choice that felt spot on to me. Most importantly, it sounded quite doable. In the end, I was planning to focus on pure gravel enjoyment with one or two interruptions for dessert.

Thanks to my short journey, I was able to hop into my cycling gear right away and get in the saddle full of motivation and not too tired. 3 p.m. saw me rolling out of the parking lot for the first time, across the street and onto the first gravel road. The rolling ended quickly enough, as I hit the Kahler Asten mountain, NRW’s second-highest mountain at with 841 meters. It offers great panoramic views as well as excellent rice pudding. Eating with a view is always worth the time. I recommend it – even if only 20 minutes have passed since you set out. There were still some kilometres to go with some elevations here and there, as a look into the distance clearly showed me. It was a pretty awesome preview of the weekend, while also making me aware that there would likely be many more spectacular views ahead of me. And there were.

Hillebachsee, © Jule Wagner

Day two started with a meeting outside the hotel that I was really looking forward to at 10 a.m. I had a king stretch date with Local Luisa. We had met many years ago at various starting lines in the surrounding area and shared all kinds of racing miles with each other. I was very excited to reunite with a more slowly beating heart, but plenty of air to chat.
Together we set out on the tour “Zu den Steinen” (“to the stones”). “How very apt for a gravel ride,” I rejoiced. However, the name is alluding to the Bruchhauser stones, a historical sight. This first national nature monument in NRW dates back to the Palaeozoic era, which makes it about 370 million years old. Anyone who wants to have a close look at the four volcanic rocks will need a bicycle lock, a few coins, and sturdy shoes as the rocks that look to me like some mini-Dolomites when viewed from a distance, are located in the closed area run by a foundation that takes care of their preservation and maintenance. 

Following a short stop at the Hillebachsee, a small reservoir with many offers, we enjoyed the stones from a distance and never noticed how fast the time and kilometres were passing. Considering the altitude difference on this tour, an extended break at the bathing bay and beach or loosening up our legs with water skiing might have been a good idea, though. In the ed, we stuck with the 1.6-kilometre-long round trip and a plan to come back at some point. 
The short and varied route took us across various gravels into the neighbouring state before we grabbed a great portion of apple strudel at the foot of the Ettelsberg in Willingen to give us the energy for the remaining 15 kilometres, with forest roads and asphalt sections accompanying our cordial conversations about the countryside and its people all the way back to Winterberg.

Little did we know that there was another highlight of a culinary nature still in store for us: Sharing dinner at the Landfein. Though expecting a more conventional dinner, we were offered many small and particularly delicious treats on the menu here. The modern cuisine invited us to entirely rediscover familiar and traditional ingredients, as we chose only the main course. All the other courses of the menu were literally a delightful surprise. The term of “Genusswirtschaft” (“restaurant of pleasure”) was the game for our evening here, in an atmosphere that was just as warm and cosy as it was tasteful along with all the lovingly prepared and arranged dishes. 

The last day didn’t feel like a departure day to me at all. I finished the annoying part of packing in just a few minutes. Maybe packing isn’t actually the right word if you only have about three pieces of clothing with you. I wasn’t thinking of travelling back yet at all. Taking a holiday at your own doorstep is as simple as it is ingenious. Instead of losing the entire day on the homebound journey, I got on my bike instead of in the car for a last lap at my leisure. This one is called the Panorama Tour. Among other things, I expect that this refers to the many panoramic views of the Waldecker Land. A brief glance at the Pastorenwiese ski cottage was all it took for me to decide that I should garnish my little break with a fresh waffle. It was a great opportunity to look back on my time in the Sauerland.

Selfie from Jule, © Jule Wagner

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Air or water enthusiasts will find many other options for attractive breaks virtually across the entire range of activities on offer. There is anything from water skiing at 30 km/h to gigantic zip lines like the Astenkick, where you can accelerate to as much as 70 km/h across a length of one kilometre. I prefer water for washing and air for breathing, and therefore stuck with my two favourite activities: Cycling and eating.

Doubtlessly, it was an excellent plan for my ravenous cycling heart to take an athletic “time out” in arguably one of the best places to relax. Once you’re out on the route, it’s easy to become immersed in an almost deserted scenic natural beauty. 
From fine gravel for beginners to coarse gravel, the terrain affords a wide variety of substrates. The many inviting dead-straight slopes made my legs fly properly. I was passing clear lakes and enchanted ponds, wooded paths full of roots, and let apparently endless gravel paths carry me into my own personal gravel bliss.

I enjoyed the scent of dense forest, the air of the open field and the freedom of my carefree thoughts. Lush meadows and benches with great views equally invited me to linger, and I found a suitable place for every biscuit from my handlebar bag. A regular calorie supply is, of course, important for physical activity. My routes also took me to many mountains and also at times to the edge of my bike’s transmission. Of course, that also made me certain that another spectacular view or another cottage with a hot waffle iron would be waiting for me just ahead. The low mountain region made it really easy for me to fall in love with it all over again.

My “full deceleration” in the virtually endless gravel fabric has thus run its course. If my time had been similarly endless, I probably would have stayed for longer. As it was, I had to come back at some point, though, and I did. It brought me back to myself, I went back home, and in particular it made me certain that it doesn’t take much, and you don’t have to go far, to feel richly endowed.

Author: Jule Wagner - Jule Wagner is living and cycling in Essen with her wife and their young daughter. She is working as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. Jule conveys the fascination of cycling with her illustrations and texts on her blog and her social-media channels.

  • Panoramic view in the sauerland, © Jule Wagner
    Cows on the meadow in the Sauerland, © Jule Wagner
    Gravel biking on dirt roads in the Sauerland, © Jule Wagner
  • Waffle with powdered sugar, © Jule Wagner
    Gravel bike in front of a beautiful view, © Jule Wagner
    Skihütte Pastorenwiese, © Jule Wagner